Everything was set up perfectly for the New York Giants.
They moved closer to the first-place Dallas Cowboys by beating them at home last week, and Dallas fell even further to New York by losing again, at home to San Diego, earlier in the day on Sunday.
So, it was there for the taking on Sunday night.
Follow up one big NFC East win over Dallas with another over the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Giants would regain the division lead they once held over both Dallas and Philadelphia after their very promising 5-0 start to the 2009 season.
However, it wasn’t meant to be.
The franchise that will go down as the winingest visiting team in the history of the current Giants Stadium, found yet another different way to defeat Big Blue at the Meadowlands, this time, in a 45-38 shootout, on Sunday night.
Although the Giants have certainly had the best of the Eagles during the course of one of the NFL’s best rivalries of all-time, the Eagles have found some very creative ways to break the hearts of Big Blue supporters at Giants Stadium over the years.
In 1978, it was Herman Edwards’ Miracle At The Meadowlands touchdown. Ten years and a day later, Clyde Simmons’ fumbling, game-winning score off of a Giants’ blocked field goal made Giants’ fans again shake their collective heads in heartbreaking disbelief. In 2003, it was Brian Westbrook’s 84-yard punt return with 1:16 left in the game which stole another late Giants Stadium win for the Eagles.
And, on Sunday night, in the 154th game between the Giants and Eagles, Philadelphia (9-4) scored, and scored, and scored some more, to hold off a prolific scoring effort by New York, in the highest scoring meeting ever between the two teams in their 76-year-old rivalry.
If anyone leading up to the game was still cringing and complaining over Giants’ quarterback Eli Manning’s poor performance or Plaxico Burress shooting himself out of the lineup in last year’s divisional home playoff loss to the Eagles, they weren’t pointing their fingers that way this time.
Although the Giants fumbled five times, losing four, while the Eagles turned the ball over just once, two of the lost fumbles didn’t matter, and the Giants put up enough offense to win had their defense not let them down like it has so many other times this season.
In a game which featured five touchdowns of 60 yards or more, New York amassed 512 yards of offense (outgaining the Eagles by 138 yards), controlled the ball for a healthy 34:46
Unlike last year’s playoffs, Giants fans can’t pin this one on Manning or on the offense he directed.
In fact, had the Giants’ defense shown up at all in any number of big spots, the game might have gone down as one of the best of Manning’s career. The Giants’ signal caller finished with a 130.5 passer rating, spreading the ball around to eight different receivers, completing 27 of 38 passes for a career-high 391 yards, while throwing three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also led New York to 27 first downs (to Philadelphia’s 20) and a comeback from two different 14-point first-half deficits and a 13-point third-quarter hole, only to see the Giants’ inept defense immediately give the lead back for good later in the same period.
To put all of that in its proper perspective, the Giants’ 38 points marked the most they have ever scored in a home loss in their long and storied history, and it was their highest point total in any loss in 43 years, since a 49-40 defeat in Cleveland, in 1966. It was also the most points ever allowed in a loss by a Tom Coughlin-coached team.
In a game like this, you usually ask if anyone is capable of tackling, but even that’s difficult to do when you can’t get close enough because you’re putting virtually no pressure on the opposing quarterback, and covering wide open receivers even worse.
The Giants’ defense allowed the Eagles to open the game by marching 67 yards on six plays in 3:27 for a quick 7-0 lead.
Four plays later, the crazy Meadowlands luck of years past continued for the Eagles, when Giants’ running back Brandon Jacobs had the ball knocked free. Before hitting the ground, the ball hit the heel of Giants’ tight end Kevin Boss (who was blocking ahead of Jacobs), and caromed high to a waiting Sheldon Brown, who took it 60 yards the other way for a 14-0 Philadelphia lead just 5:20 into the game.
The Giants’ offense responded though with a drive for a Lawrence Tynes 26-yard field goal in the first quarter, and then 1:53 into the second period, Manning hit rookie Hakeem Nicks, who made a nice spin move to break a tackle and streak 68 yards for a touchdown to pull New York to within 14-10.
But then, the Giants’ defense allowed a twelve-play, 75-yard drive for a field goal before Big Blue’s special teams broke down, allowing the speedy DeSean Jackson to wait for the Giants’ coverage team to overrun him, turning seemingly nothing into a 72-yard punt return for a touchdown to put Philadelphia ahead, 24-10.
Once again, the Giants’ offense kept New York in the game. Manning led an eight-play, 67-yard drive that was finished by running back Ahmad Bradshaw’s 3-yard touchdown run, to get the Giants back to within 24-17 with 1:30 left in the opening half.
However, the Eagles then came right back on the Giants’ porous pass defense again. New York inexcusably allowed a 44-yard completion from quarterback Donovan McNabb (17-26, 275 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT) with the Eagles facing a third-and-20 from their own 32-yard line.
Three plays later, McNabb found tight end Brent Celek for another 23-yard chunk of yardage, setting up a one-yard touchdown run by Michael Vick (PAT missed) ten seconds before the half, for a 30-17 halftime lead for the Eagles.
It was the second time in as many games against the Giants this season that the Eagles posted a 30-spot in the first half against New York. The Giants trailed 30-7 at the half in a 40-17 Week 8 loss in Philadelphia. The 85 combined points were the most any team has scored against the Giants in one season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, and that type of scoring allowed the first Eagles’ sweep of the Giants in five years.
The game also marked the first season since 1973 that the Giants have given up at least 40 points or more in at least three games.
Giants’ defensive end very bluntly admitted, “Our defense, we just played like crap. Our offense, for them to put up that many points, and we can’t come out with a victory, we just can’t have that.”
And still, the Giants’ offense wouldn’t let its team go away quietly in such a big divisional game.
New York took the opening kickoff of the second half and drove 74 yards on eleven plays, with Manning completing a 23-yard pass to Boss and a 20-yarder to Nicks, to help set up a Jacobs one-yard touchdown plunge on fourth-and-goal, to draw the Giants to within 30-24.
Then, the Giants’ defense finally came through for a short while.
Linebacker Jonathan Goff intercepted McNabb, giving New York great field position at the Philadelphia 29-yard line, but Manning fumbled on a controversial call when he dove head first and the ground caused the ball to pop loose and be recovered at the Eagles’ 14-yard line.
The play didn’t hurt New York much though, because the Giants’ defense actually responded with, get this –- a three-and-out, and Manning took advantage right away, with a 61-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Domenik Hixon, to give the Giants their only lead of the game, 31-30, with 5:12 left in the third quarter.
That’s when the New York defense went from Big Blue to Big Bust again, allowing Philadelphia to regain the lead for good, 37-31, just 15 seconds later on a 60-yard touchdown pass from McNabb to Jackson, who not only torched the Giants for 178 yards on six catches, but he embarrassed them on that play, losing the New York secondary so badly, that he danced backwards into the end zone for the final few yards before scoring.
It was the eighth touchdown of 50 yards or more for Jackson, which tied an NFL record.
In the fourth quarter, the Giants, still down just six points, had Philadelphia backed up at its own 9-yard line after a good punt by Jeff Feagles.
So naturally, rather than getting the ball back with good field position for a Giants’ offense that was humming, the New York defense allowed a game-clinching twelve-play, 91-yard touchdown drive which ate up 7:24. And, for good measure, they allowed the ensuing two-point conversion, as well, putting Philadelphia ahead, 45-31.
The Giants’ offense still battled back, scoring on a four-yard Manning touchdown pass to Boss with 1:31 left, but an onside kick attempt failed, and the Eagles held on for their fourth straight win over the Giants and their third in a row over New York at Giants Stadium.
Prior to the Giant’s final touchdown, with 2:21 remaining and two timeouts left, the Mario Manningham just missed getting his left toe inbounds on what was very nearly a 28-yard touchdown catch from Manning.
Had that play been a touchdown, the Giants could have used the two-minute warning as a third timeout to get the ball back and score again to force overtime.
But, did that many in the building have any confidence that if that scenario took place, and the Giants needed a big stop, that the defense would actually come through?
The way it actually did play out, the Giants’ defense caused New York to miss a big opportunity.
And yet, the Giants might still have everything still set up okay. Maybe no longer to win the NFC East, but at least, to make the playoffs, since Dallas is in the midst of its annual December swoon, started by that Giants’ victory over the Cowboys last week.
New York (7-6) trails Dallas (8-5) by a game in the standings, but it holds the tiebreaker having swept the Cowboys this season, and the Giants appear to have a significantly more manageable schedule over the final three weeks of the regular season.
A disappointed yet realistic Coughlin said, “We still have a lot to play for.”
Meanwhile, Tuck said, “That’s what thing I know about this team. We won’t ever quit.”
After losing another game to the Eagles, the Giants can’t afford to.